When I was 13, an actor came up to me at a dance theatre production in New York City, stuck a rose down my tank top, and kissed me. It seemed impossible, maybe even illegal. Later, at a production of the then-breakout hit Sleep No More, an actor escorted me into a private room, held me for a long time, and handed me a small charm necklace on a single red thread. It’s up there as one of my all-time most-favourite moments of theatre magic.
The Berliner Festspiele’s new Immersion platform comes from this same visceral place I find so familiar. “I am fascinated by artworks that include me, surround me, bring me in the centre of everything that happens,” says curator Thomas Oberender. Just like food trucks and sweet-and-salty ice cream, immersive theatre has come better late than never to our fair city.
In German, apparently, “immersion” has much more to do with the digital than the touchy-feely stuff. At the Martin-Gropius-Bau throughout July, you’ll find five performance pieces/installations that involve tech and virtual reality – like an eight-room digital mausoleum from Rimini Protokoll, or a VR experience based on Mona el Gammal’s Rhizomat. Is it really immersive if your head is in a tiny box while you’re wondering whether you look like an idiot stumbling around like a baby bear with its head stuck in a jar? Or here’s a less biased question – what’s the diff erence between immersive and participatory theatre, interactive theatre and installations? It seems like everyone is excited about getting the audience out of chairs and into the action, but a new vocabulary is still in its infancy.
The programme’s summer centrepiece is a yet-untitled installation from Vegard Vinge and Ida Müller. Site-specific, drawing attention to interesting corners of out-of-the-way Berlin? Check – it’s in a munition factory complex in Reinickendorf. Durational? Yep – from six in the evening to the morning, come and go as you please. Designed for the curious to explore? This, too. The so-called Nationaltheater Reinickendorf will be “the biggest independent theatre house built in Berlin since the Wall came down,” says Oberender. It’s not just a completely handmade theatre building but also a submarine, cathedral, a bar. Ibsen is a backbone for the piece; there will also be some kind of an opera involved. More than that, who knows?
These kinds of performances can often feel closer to the theme park than to ritual. Oberender shares this frustration: “We try to think about and present art forms that are immersive, but not in a stupid way. This model of a prosumer that we see in our everyday lives, someone who is consuming and producing at the same time – it’s a model for experiencing art as well.”
I do have to wonder whether this kind of utopian mutuality isn’t a kind of neoliberal pipe dream. In October, Immersion will present Berlin art bro Jonathan Meese’s Mondparsifal, an overwhelming Gesamtkunstwerk illustrating his “dictatorship of art” concept. Meese’s Führer-obsession isn’t so off -base when you think about Putin, Erdogan, even “your American President” (Oberender) on the global scene. So maybe it’s better to confront authoritarianism in a theatre rather than take fake dancing lessons on a fake cruise ship and call it “immersive art”. But let’s say I reject being used – being immersed – in this way? This, too, is one of the problems with immersive art: even at it’s most participatory, it’s still make-believe. Any resistance I might imagine is as meaningless as those kisses.
Immersion: Limits of Knowing, Jul 1-31, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Kreuzberg
Immersion: Nationaltheater Reinickendorf, Jul 1, 6, 8, 13, 15, 18, 22, 26, 28, 30, see website for more details